Playing Together

A lot of MMO gamers play with someone they know in real life. For example, 60% of female gamers and 16% of male gamers play with a romantic partner. 40% of female gamers and 35% of male gamers play with a family member. As you can imagine, playing with someone you know can be both a good and bad thing. Here are stories that cover many different aspects of that game-play.

Enhances Game-Play

One dominant theme was that playing with someone you know in RL enhances game play. It simply makes the game more fun to know who you're playing with.

I regularly play online games with my husband. I find that playing with someone nearby (in voice range) is a great asset for online gaming. Knowing my husbands play style and him knowing mine, makes all the difference in our game enjoyment. We know what to expect from each other and rely on those things. Being able to play together keeps our relationship strong and playful, both in game and in real life. We always have something to talk about...the day to day RL grind and that ugly monster we had to deal with in game. =D [ATITD, F, 44]

Jason from New Orleans describes how his EQ experience was enhanced after his best friend started playing.

When my best RL friend started playing EQ, the game suddenly became a whole lot more enjoyable. We knew each other pretty well, so we already had a really trusting relationship. We really worked well, he as an ogre warrior, I as a dark-elven cleric. We played together all the time, though eventually he started to outlevel me. Since we saw each other all the time in real life, though, it wasn't a big deal. He would just make new a character, get them high enough level to group up with me again, outlevel me, and start all over again. We went through four characters like that, hehe. Warrior, rogue, druid, shadowknight... I remember grouping with all of them with my cleric, and it was always a lot of fun. I've had some good online friends in EQ, some of whom I still chat with, but grouping with my RL buddy was always the most fun I'd had in it. [EQ, M, 23]


Too Much Obligation

But it's not always fun to play with someone you have an existing relationship with. Several players commented on the intrusion of obligation and how playing a game can feel more like baby-sitting.

At first playing with people I knew in real life was fun, but it soon became an issue of me being the higher level player coming to the help of my friends. It grew to the point where I couldn't play my high level character half the time because I had to help them all the time. It even stressed the friendship so much that I have very little contact with some of them, and absolutely no contact with others. [EQ, M, 25]

I briefly played with my little cousin in the beta for Lineage many years ago. It was terrible, because I always felt as if it were my duty to make sure he was always getting adena, and the right weapons, and the right spells, and on and on. I don't want to play games to just have another outlet for the responsibilities i have in real life with the same people. [CoH, M, 19]


Keeping in Touch - A Space to Work on Something Together

For many, the MMO provides a space to keep in touch with a friend or family member who lives somewhere else. The MMO space is distinctively different from email, IM or the phone because you can't collaborate and do things together in those mediums. What the MMO provides is a space to not only spend time together but to work on something in common.

I've played online with a few friends I've known in real life on many separate occasions, mostly in high school, when some fellow students and I would get together online after school. Most recently, I've been getting together in a MMORPG with a very close friend of mine who moved recently. It gives us an opportunity to still 'see' each other and be able to do things together, unlike just chatting (either on the phone or online) where we can't interact on the same level. Being able to 'see' one another and then go hunting or hang around town feels much closer to getting together in real life than talking on the phone or e-mailing one another does. [Realm Online, M, 23]

Ryan is a grad student in legal philosophy from Toronto. For him, playing an MMO with a good friend reminds him of them terrorizing IRC chat rooms together when they were young.

the playing experience was a lot more fun. my friend and i live far apart, so the ability to contribute to a 'project' together was a great way to reinforce our relationship. working together was easy and the play experience more fun because we both know what the other likes, finds amusing, etc. what did happen was that our real life relationship was strengthened somewhat because we had a shared experience. notably, the same used to happen to us when we were younger and would 'terrorize' IRC chat rooms. [Vendetta, M, 26]

I play MMO's with my fiancée. I'm a graduate student on the west coast, and he lives on the east coast. It's a way for us to do things together. In game, we were much the same as out of the game. I think it helped the relationship, because it was more 'personal' contact than through phone calls, email, or some sort of instant messaging program. [DAoC, F, 29]


Brought Us Closer

For others, the game-play strengthens existing bonds by providing another shared source of entertainment as well as ways for people to build trust through working together.

I play almost every day with my real life boyfriend (soon to be husband). We work very well together in game and it makes for a great playing experience. Knowing each other (as well as being in the same room together) makes it easier to play an MMO because you know how each other speaks, and this means less typing in game, which can slow you down sometimes. No in game experiences have changed our relationship, if anything we are closer because we share something together that we both enjoy. [UO, F, 22]

I play with my boyfriend. We 'dork out' together, side by side on our respective computers. Gaming is considered to be quality 'us' time. During game play, there's a lot of high emotions, yelling and screaming. But we value the game time because it brings us closer together. And it's a lot more fun if you can coordinate efforts verbally (instead of through the chat window). It's important for couples to have a common activity that they participate in on a regular basis. Our common interest is gaming. Actually, I don't think I would play if it weren't for him, but he plays regardless. [AO, F, 23]

I've played with a work colleague, that I sat beside most days and enjoyed that. Probably bought us closer together and we are good friends rather than colleagues now. Also played with my wife for a while, which was very enjoyable as I was partaking in something I enjoyed with the person I most wanted to be with. [EQ2, M, 39]


Highlights Existing Conflicts

But playing together means making decisions together and personality differences are magnified in MMO spaces because so much of the game play revolves around reacting to and acting upon something that happens. And playing with someone you know can become more of a struggle.

Gaming with my boyfriend in an MMO was a really enjoyable and enlightening experience. Knowing each other very well in real life made it easier in my opinion to play together. The two relationships were seperate (real and virtual). I noticed many of the ways we're different when playing together. I for example love to help others and be part of a team, he'd rather just get xp and levels and items and very much enjoyed player killing and was usually rude or mean to others in the game. It was a different side of him I had never seen, he's very different online. He has quit playing and I continued, it sometimes puts a strain on our relationship, but usually we're fine. He plays other games now, even though we're gaming a lot we're always in the same room and talk and laugh a lot, and still love each other very much. [EQ, F, 20]

I currently play with an ex-colleague. My colleague and I lost contact with each other after I left my job because our lives had taken different directions. I started up and account on EverQuest II and called my colleague and told him about it. That day he signed up and now we play together almost every night and even talk on the phone again. I'd say we're as close now as we were when we were working together. Since he always needs to be the best at everything, playing with him can be difficult at times. He plays often and is motivated by gaining experience and levels. His goal is always to be the highest level character in the game. I like to play multiple characters and find enjoyment in doing quests, helping others, chatting, role-playing, etc. His character (he concentrates on one at a time) will surpass mine in levels and we end up splitting up in the game. He doesn't care to slow down to wait for my character to catch up to his unless he needs my character to help his character with something. [EQ2, F, 28]

My boyfriend and I have played many MMORPGS together and, in my opinion, the experience is always a poor one. We each have different playing styles: I get frustrated by how he always wants to group with me (sometimes I like to play alone), and he gets annoyed when I recreate my character (which I tend to do frequently), causing him to lose an equal-leveled partner. [CoH, M, 22]

For others, the MMO space highlighted existing conflicts in a relationship in unexpected ways.

I play with my husband and many of my old high school friends often. My relationship with my husband has made it a lot easier to play together--we get along really well both in game and out of game. However, the game has brought out conflicts within my group of friends. The conflicts--mostly having to do with social class and monetary status--have continued into the game, amplified and reflected within the game. One member of our group of friends, for example, stumbled largely by luck into a high-end raiding guild that helped him get a lot of very nice loot. This became a real sore point for some of my friends, and it became clear that they had always seen this person as having unfair class advantages from his family all our lives. So I would say gaming didn't change our relationships at all (except make it possible to play together scattered all over the world), but it added a new, symbolic way for us to play out the psychological dramas always lurking in our real lives too. [EQ, F, 35]


It All Spills Over

Just as the good things carry over into real life, so do the bad things. It's hard to contain disagreements and fights that happen in the virtual space and keep them there.

Often my character would get more loot and/or responsibility than my husband during raids. This would cause a rift between us in real life. Also, I would often find myself getting on to my husband for not being very skillful. He would break mez, run up on the puller etc. It would embarrass me in front of my guild mates...resulting in either me silently resenting him or me giving him a good tongue thrashing about not paying attention. [EQ, F, 27]

Tamara, a planet-hopping ESL teacher currently in Austria, ran a guild with her roommate and describes the good and bad sides of that.

In some respects playing with my roommate was excellent. We ran a guild and between us were able to talk about things inside and outside the game. Unfortunately the bad side was that disagreements didn't always end in the game, and often carried through to affect the atmosphere in the house. He would do some utterly stupid things sometimes, and I'm sure vice versa. [AO, F, 25]

For a few people, the conflicts that emerged from the game play had a significant negative impact on their RL relationship.

I started playing EQ in order to spend time with my then boyfriend (who I lived with) Initially, it was a good experience, but as time went on and my characters leveled faster than his, playing together was more irritating than anything else. He was intensely jealous that I excelled more than he in a game that he had been playing much longer. We had separate friends in EQ and he grew jealous of my online friends. Ultimately the game that I had started playing to spend time with him became a huge downfall in our relationship. He began to accuse me of spending more time with my EQ buddies than with him, that I cared more about them, etc.. [EQ, F, 29]

I had a real life friend playing on the same server as I did on EverQuest. It was neither good or bad, but we had a lot of arguments. He didn't know the game as well as I did, even though he started first, so he disagreed with me a lot. I also lend him money every so often, but he did not focus on repaying back to me. In a way, it loosened the relationship [DAoC, M, 18]

At first, my wife and I started to play SWG to do something together. Unfortunately we only opened one account, so she had a toon on one server and I had one on another, therefore this rarely happened. Furthermore, with her being more outgoing and social than I, she developed friendships more rapidly and was invited to do more interesting things, thus leveling her toon much faster than I did mine. This led to her getting more and more of the playtime, until I hardly played at all and she played VERY frequently. It has caused strain on our marriage and I have since developed a resentment for something I initially really enjoyed playing. [SWG, M, 34]

A co-worker of mine drew me in to playing Asheron's Call. Since we sat next to each other at work and both became intensely absorbed in the game rules, mechanics and adventures we actually spent a good portion of our work days discussing, creating charts, planning quests, and mapping out careers for the game. In-game we enjoyed a lot of teamwork, we pooled our resources together and both became experts on the game. His real life bipolar personality and high stress level drove him to take the game a little too seriously, and it carried over to our work environment, which turned very sour. Although he quit the game, I still had to deal with him at work and my only escape from him was when we were all laid off. This story is odd to me because normally you can just squelch a grief player in-game or move to a different server, but in this case the caustic 'virtual' personality plagued me in real life. [EQ2, M, 36]


What Do Your Virtual Actions Say About You?

Another kind of spillover that occurs doesn't derive from an existing personality difference that results in a conflict but sometimes players feel the game forces them to choose against people they know in real life. The problem is that your virtual decisions impact your real life.

"Witkin" is an IT director who works in the Nevada casino industry. He played EQ with a co-worker but decisions he made in EverQuest played out in the real world.

I was introduced to EverQuest by a co-worker. I was the Director of the department in which he worked, but we had become friends. I became very interested in EQ and took time outside of the game to research quests, skills, and the like. After a few months my own knowledge of EQ was greater than that of my friend, and my main character had surpassed his highest level toon.

The EQ world can be social or solitary depending on how you choose to play, and I had developed an in-game reputation for being knowledgeable of my class, and a reliable player all around. That reputation resulted in my being invited to join a well-respected guild. This created tension in the real life relationship with my co-worker. I couldn't invite him to the guild, and while I liked him as a RL friend, I wasn't fond of his play style. Eventually we stopped hanging out much in RL, and he started alternate characters to avoid interacting with me in-game. There was a definite, tangible effect on my real life friendship with that person based on how we choose to play a video game. [EQ, M, 33]

2 of my friends where basically really sucky at playing games and thus I had them removed from the guild. This obviously caused some friction IRL but luckily not so much as our friendship ended. I used the analogy of 'Michael Jordan doesn't have all of his RL friends playing on the same team as them' to justify this. I guess it boils down to whether or not you think that a RL friendship is enough of a reason to make your OL gaming experience less fun that it could be. [WoW, M, 30]


A Stage For Resolution?

But in the same way that the MMO space can magnify existing personality differences, they can provide the stage on which those RL tensions can be resolved because the roots of those tensions are clarified and laid out. The play space can become a space where RL tensions are "played" out and resolved.

Constance is a graduate student in theology from Wisconsin. Here she describes how playing together reshaped her relationship with a close friend.

I played the game with a romantic partner who has since become just a friend. In fact, we were romantically involved for only a short time, our friendship is more significant. We have played together now for 3-4 years. For the first couple of years (as both romantic partners and friends) we fought in-game CONSTANTLY, in a way that we did not fight in real life. It was so maddening.

He had played the game since creation date, I started two years in. He knew everything and he was very bossy and controlling and it made me insane. (Not to mention how many times he lead me to my death.) I would get more furious playing the game with him then I think I had ever gotten in real life. I am typically very mild, but he made me feel like a piece of luggage and I would get so mad that my eyes would water and I would have to log out. Often when I logged in I hoped he wasn't on.

I kept making chars and not giving the names to him. It baffled me. 'It's only a game,' I would tell myself. But I felt like a puppet. Or a disgruntled 50s housewife. I felt like I did not have a char, I was just an extension of his char. It speaks to the immersion level of the game, because I was truly upset on a personal-identity level. What is interesting, is that we don't fight at all anymore. We still fought for some time after ceasing to be romantically involved and only being friends, so I don't think that was it.

I honestly believe that we both changed in RL because of this experience. I learned not to get so upset if I'm not in complete control and don't always know everything about what is going on. And he learned how to be co-operative and not controlling, and how to communicate rather than dictate. Now there is no one I'd rather game with, and I don't have as much fun playing when he isn't on. I think the in-game arguing, though it never occurred to the same level outside of the game, was an intense version of something that existed in real life, but was not as clearly seen in real life. The game situation heightened tensions that were more muted in real life. Mild communication problems in real life became extreme in the game. [EQ, F, 34]


Roles and Windows

Oftentimes, the game space allows people we know to take on roles that differ from their roles in real life. Some players commented on how MMOs allowed them to see people they knew in a different light. The MMO experience allowed them to rethink the predefined roles they were used to seeing each other in.

I play with 3 other family members. It is a BLAST! The advantages in having all of us in the same room when we are all playing together are numerous. Outside of the game it is a fun topic of conversation and very much like having a hobby we all do together. It has also given me the opportunity to see my family members in different roles from those one usually sees around the dinner table. [EQ, F, 49]

In the real world my grandson is a fairly silent, somewhat withdrawn, boy who acts much younger than his 12 years; inside the game his characters are outgoing and verbose. In the real world he hides his intelligence and asserts that he is uninterested in most things most of the time; his ingame attitude is one of immense curiosity -- he's discovered things about some of the zones within hours of his first visit to them that some long time players don't know. In game he values loyalty and fair play very highly; out of game he seems unaware of the concepts. He regularly tries to help characters who are lower level than he is by communicating either out of character or using tells. e.g. he said to me during one game, 'you med for a while Nana' and went zipping off, up the hilll and out of sight; on returning he explained that he'd seen another character that was 'green' going somewhere 'over his head'. [EQ, F, 58]

Brian is a system admin from Maryland who works on a military base. Here he first describes his surprise at his wife's more extraverted personality in the game and then how that allowed them to work on bringing that confidence into the real world.

I used to play online MMORPGs with my wife. I found that while she tended to be more restrained and submissive in real life, out in the virtual world she was a good deal more confident in herself and in what her character could do; it was as though all the concerns she had regarding her abilities in the real world were left behind and she was free to be more like her real self.

It's perhaps a little sad to admit, but prior to seeing her express those traits, I had considered her personality quite limited due to her shyness and lack of confidence. My role as a husband was part equal and part superior; I made the decisions for our relationship, I decided what we would do for dinner, I took care of things and acted as much parent as spouse.

When I saw her start to show confidence in-game I started giving her real world reminders of her other personality. In retrospect I could have taken steps to build her confidence and help change her personality around without the game as a motivating factor and sandbox, but sadly I probably would not have tried -- it was knowing that she had the potential that in turn caused my change in approach.

She gained a lot of confidence in herself. Instead of being a quiet and uncertain woman, she now goes out with friends, enjoys karaoke, has worked a couple of jobs (previously she was afraid to go to interviews!). [FFXI, M, 25]

The MMO space can be many things for a relationship. It can create conflicts that spill over into the real world. It can become a stage where differences become magnified and conflicts escalate. It can be a window into parts of other people that we've never seen in real life. And most interesting of all, they can be catalysts of change by highlighting those differences and nuances in people who we already know and helping us think about them in entirely different ways.